Even if “project manager” isn’t part of your title or job description, you likely will have to oversee a project at some point in your career. After all, projects occur at every level of all organizations, industries and professions.
Maybe you’ve been asked to organize a day-long staff retreat or a special anniversary celebration. Or maybe you’ve been asked to coordinate art and text for a marketing campaign.
For projects both complex and simple, a practical and solid plan can make everything flow more smoothly – AND make you look brilliant. (And who doesn’t want that?)
In short, everyone can benefit from a few project management skills.
Whether you’re new to project management or are looking for a few tools to effectively run your own projects, we recommend starting with these five tips.
1. Identify the project objectives.
Every project begins with two questions: What is your understanding of the task? and What will the deliverable look like? Don’t even think about starting a project until you answer those. Jot the answers into a document. This is the start of your project charter, a go-to document that lists the project basics from goals and scope to budget and timeline. This helps you communicate with stakeholders and measure progress. Use it!
2. Develop action steps.
“Begin at the beginning," advised the King as he prompted Alice in Wonderland to tell about her adventures. That’s good advice for managing a project too. Start by listing the first three steps. Categorize each task. Continue this process until you’ve listed every action step needed to get the work done. This work breakdown structure is basically a glorified (and very detailed!) to-do list. It will help you identify where team members and other resources are needed.
3. Get organized.
Maybe you've never won any “most organized” awards. Now is the time to do better. Capture ideas, requests and actions using one notebook, sticky notes, or an Excel document. Experiment using digital tools like Trello to keep you and resources in one place. The type of tool you use is less important than being confident that you know what is required, the action steps needed, and most important, how to communicate them to the team. What tools work for you?
4. Identify risks.
For project managers, a risk is anything that she doesn't have control over. For example, could less funding come through than estimated? Might a timeline be crunched because of a scheduled vacation? What if an event sells out quickly or a new product is so popular that supply can't keep up with demand?
Take a few minutes to list all of the risks that may affect your project. (Go ahead – put them in the project charter.) Think about both positive and negative events that you can't control. Once you've identified the risks, you can work on finding solutions or contingency actions to mitigate them. Trust us. You will never regret taking the time to think through potential risks and brainstorming ways to turn them into opportunities.
5. Communicate. Communicate. Communicate.
As your project moves forward, be sure to track and communicate project progress. Be sure you know who your team and stakeholders are. Think about what information they need and how frequently they need it – and the best way to reach them. Tools for sharing your progress include communication plans, meeting agendas and project reports. Communicate frequently road blocks, successes, failures, resource needs, meetings, and action steps. You can never over-communicate.
These five steps will get any project heading in the right direction. And you’ll know you’ve done everything you can to make it successful.
In our work, we get some interesting requests.
One of the most memorable came from a client who regularly produces commercials. One afternoon we received a panicked call from the project manager overseeing an upcoming shoot.
The team had written the script, cast the talent, and ordered the props. The production team was scheduled and ready to go.
There was one problem. Because of unexpected circumstances, a major element of the set was missing: the walls.
The phone conversation went something like this:
“We need materials for interior walls, plus the wall constructed and installed at the set by eight a.m.”
“Give me 20 minutes, and I’ll call you back,” said Anita.
Within 10 minutes, Anita identified a solution. She found a builder and confirmed materials, building plans, and delivery. Less than 36 hours later, the set walls were delivered and assembled.
These types of requests are rare, but at Reach Partners we embrace the challenge of making the seemingly impossible become possible. In particular, we are thrilled when we can connect the right people at the right time to get a project done.
We can do this because we have good connections – a short list of go-to people whom will take our calls any time of day. These people have been in the trenches with us before and know how to work with us. We can skip formalities and focus quickly on what needs to be done.
Everybody needs these types of relationships – vendors, subcontractors, and amazingly talented people who can save your butt (and project!) when the unexpected pops up.
For many clients, Reach Partners is on that short list – mostly because we have those connections that can solve seemingly impossible problems. We recognize that these relationships and connections are among our most valuable resources.
Do you have a short list of go-to folks whom you rely on professionally and personally? Whom do you call when you needed promotional items ordered yesterday? Or your hair stylist moves to Texas?
If you don’t have a short list of go-to connections, now is the time to start developing one. Form a close relationship with a lawyer, editor, fix-it gal, restauranteur, graphic designer, printer, massage therapist, yogi, accountant, cook, talent agent, writer.
There’s no end to the skillsets and networking – the value – that these connections can bring to your work and life.
Suicide and suicide-related behaviors can be newsworthy topics. But how those stories are shared makes a difference in how others in the community view and respond to suicide.
We helped to shine light on this topic when we designed and planned a communications conference for news media and spokespeople.
Mental Health America of North Dakota and partner agencies wanted to erase the stigma around suicide, while increasing the likelihood that vulnerable individuals would seek help after viewing or reading a story about suicide.
To address this issue, they received a grant to hold a communications summit for news media and organizational spokespeople. They asked Reach Partners to join the summit’s planning committee and to oversee details of the conference, which was held in both Fargo and Bismarck.
“It was an honor to do this,” says Anita Hoffarth, co-owner of Reach Partners. “We were a key part of the committee.”
The group invited Daniel J. Reidenberg, executive director of S.A.V.E. (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education), to share best practices in reporting on suicide. In addition, a panel of survivors of suicide loss shared their personal experiences. They spoke about what it was like to be interviewed by members of the media and how the language and headlines used affected their families.
Sixty-five members of the media, public information officers, law enforcement and educators attended the conference. Conference planners assembled educational resources to distribute to those who had been invited but couldn’t attend.
During the half-day event, attendees learned more about suicide and how reporting and messaging could make a difference in whether viewers and readers would consider suicide or seek help.
One best practice shared was to no longer use the phrase “commit suicide” since the verb suggests the person conducted a crime. Instead reporters were encouraged to say “died by suicide.”
In a post-conference evaluation, 100 percent of the attendees said they were likely to use the information presented the next time they had to report on a suicide.
“I learned a lot of useful things and important considerations for my stories in the future. Thanks!” wrote one attendee.
Local news reports began to reflect many of the best practices shared at the summit – and journalists continue to be more responsible in their reports.
“I’ve even become more careful in how I talk about suicide and share with others what I learned,” Anita says.
Few things make people in a group setting more uncomfortable than silence.
People look awkwardly at their phones or notebooks while the lack of speech weighs heavily in the air. Nobody makes eye contact until someone breaks the tension with nervous laughter.
But, shhhh . . .
There’s power in that silence.
Musicians know this. A few (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Claude Debussy, as a start) have been credited with variations on the sentiment that “the music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.” Or as the jazz musician Miles Davis put it: “It’s not the notes you play, it’s the notes you don’t play.”
Silence gives noise meaning. In many situations, it is a golden ticket to stronger communication and building trust.
After all, when we have a message to deliver, we want people to listen. Silence may signal that someone is actively paying attention and they need a moment to collect their thoughts before responding. Silence, in this case, suggests they’ve actually listened to the conversation before forming their own commentary.
Posing a good question to the group also may result in quiet space. People are thinking, figuring out how to frame their responses. Consider the communication styles of those around you. While some people work through their ideas verbally, others need a few minutes of quiet time to collect their thoughts and courage.
If a group is brainstorming or sharing ideas, you can expect that conversation will ebb and flow. For a few minutes, ideas may come very quickly and then the pace slows down. Just as a piece of music may contain different time signatures, this rhythm may change multiple times throughout the conversation. If you don’t allow space between the noise, ideas could be left out.
There are times, of course, that silence signals a problem.
For example, phone conversations or conference calls are difficult to monitor when it comes to silence. Because you can’t read non-verbal cues, it’s challenging to know whether silence means a person is thinking (perfect!), walked away in frustration (not perfect!), or got disconnected (oops!).
If you are gathering in person, silence could signal that everyone isn’t prepared for the meeting. Just because you created a thorough agenda doesn’t mean everyone has read it. Watch body language to determine whether people need a moment to compose their thoughts or they haven’t completed their homework.
The most difficult part about silence may not be interpreting it, but in allowing it to happen. Handling a bit of silence may be more challenging than you think.
We’re so used to filling quiet with sound that true silence may feel like eternity even if it’s only a few seconds or more.
If you’re tempted to jump in with a comment, stop. Count silently in your head or watch the second hand of a clock. Don’t fall into the trap of rescuing anybody. Let the awkward silence achieve its superpower.
You won’t have to wait long. In my experience someone will start talking in 10 seconds or less. Someone almost always does.
Shhh . . . wait for it.
Think about the last time you showed up for a meeting.
Did the group leader take a moment and review why the group was gathered? Did she summarize what had been agreed upon at the last meeting and what needed to be accomplished at this one?
How did that meeting go?
When a group meets, it pays to devote two to three minutes at the start of every meeting to recap previous efforts and share a vision for the future.
This does not mean you revisit the previous meeting’s entire agenda. Projects would never move forward if you did that. But taking a few minutes to share where things are at or what has happened since the last meeting can be beneficial.
To be clear, a recap is different than sending out meeting notes or minutes (which should be distributed after each gathering). But if you assume that everyone in the meeting has read the previous meeting notes, you are likely to be disappointed. (No judgment here. It’s reality.)
Even if everyone reads the notes and were at the last meeting, they will appreciate a reminder of what is going on, where things are headed, and what needs to be done.
After all, people make better decisions when they have context for the questions, needs, or purpose.
Start your recap with a statement of purpose, declare why you are meeting. Dignify past efforts by briefly providing the facts: the who, what, when, why. Let them know what needs attention and action today.
This statement can be part of each agenda and read by someone at the start of each meeting. The brief summary allows everyone to move as a team and step into the role of decision maker. It serves as a friendly reminder of why the group has gathered and keeps everyone focused on what is important at the moment.
There’s another way to look at it is like this. To move forward as a team, you should:
Identify purpose + Summarize steps taken + Identify desired outcome
If you want to make progress, it’s always worth taking a step or two backwards to recap.
When we moved into our new office space (across the hall from our previous location) last summer, something felt familiar.
I couldn’t exactly put my finger on what or why. I had visited the space when it was inhabited by another company, but I hadn’t spent a lot of time in there. Yet, I couldn’t get rid of the feeling that something significant had taken place in the very spot where I now work.
And then I had my ah-ha moment: My office used to be Tony’s office. You see, Tony’s work experiences have made me pause and reflect on work life at Reach Partners.
Tony was a long-term employee who worked with this other company in our building. Several years ago she requested one day off – July 10.
I recognize that granting vacation requests or personal days off can be complicated. But from what I understand about this business’s industry, mid-July wasn’t a busy time of the year. From what I knew about Tony, she was hard working and committed.
I don’t know why Tony asked for the day off, but it didn’t matter. Her boss said no. In response, Tony put in her two-weeks’ notice and left the company.
I’m sure denying the request for a day off wasn’t the only reason Tony left, but it certainly was the last straw for her.
Yes, there are rules and employee handbooks to follow. There are good reasons, as an employer, to have policies in place. There also are situations where employers and employees have to make hard choices. For example, I took off less time after my second child was born than I did when my first child arrived. Rachel once chose to fly from Minneapolis to Bismarck so she could attend a family wedding and fulfill a client obligation over the same weekend.
As at any company, Reach Partners always tries to balance the responsibilities of work with the responsibilities of personal life. Sometimes it’s easy; sometimes it’s not. Still, we believe our team is happier, healthier, and more productive when we trust our people to make decisions about their time.
Never do I want to run the kind of company that isn’t willing to consider an employee’s request for personal time. Tony’s company lost an experienced employee. I still wonder if her boss regrets his decision to deny her a day off.
In honor of Tony, we have observed July 10 as a Reach Partners holiday for several years.
This year, Tony’s Day Off will be held a day early because of some scheduling conflicts. That’s okay. What’s important is that we take a day off and recognize that sometimes the best policy is showing a little empathy and trust.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is an updated version of a post that ran July 7, 2015.
When it comes to designing and planning events, it’s important to tap your creativity.
That was the case when we worked with Sanford Health and its partners – LifeSource, Dakota Lions Sight & Health, and Minnesota Lions Eye Bank. They wanted to honor the people who gave eyes, organs, and tissues during the 15 years the health system has done transplants.
The group designed and installed a Wall of Donor Heroes to honor living donors and those whose death extended someone else’s life.
But they needed some help when it came time to plan a reception to accompany the reveal of the wall to donors, donor families, and recipients.
The group of stakeholders included partners from throughout the community. The group led by Sanford Health’s marketing office was passionate about the project and had lots of ideas, but struggled to bring them to fruition.
“They were thinking about all of the necessary details, but they were trying to answer all the questions at the same time and became overwhelmed. That made it hard to move forward,” says Rachel Asleson, co-owner of Reach Partners.
Complicating the planning process, Sanford’s point person for the project was leaving and other Sanford team members were focused on the upcoming opening of a new hospital.
Sanford Health asked Reach Partners to step in and help shape a gathering filled with the dignity that donors and surviving families deserved. Reach Partners then guided the group to plan and execute the details in a timely, organized way.
Rachel worked with the project group to create an intentional event that celebrated new life while honoring the individuals who had passed away.
Before she came on board, some details had been predetermined. The reveal was scheduled for April, National Donate Life month. The group also wanted the reception to be held near the Wall of Donor Heroes at the Sanford Health Broadway Medical Center in Fargo.
These decisions brought with them some event challenges. The weather in mid-April is unpredictable, meaning that the event would largely have to be planned for an inside space. The lobby around the Wall of Donor Heroes, however, was not big enough to hold the number of guests the group wanted to invite.
To solve the problem, Reach Partners recommended a rolling program conducted during a two-hour reception. Guests were invited to wander through three levels of the lobby.
Instead of one long program, speakers presented short messages throughout the evening. This allowed attendees to come and go as they needed. During the presentations, those in attendance could easily gather and stand near the Donor Wall. Screens also were strategically placed so that guests could see a live-stream of speakers without being near the wall.
“Rachel did an awesome job wrangling this event,” says Brian Fuder of Dakota Lions Sight & Health. “I am truly impressed with her abilities. Reach Partners is a solution provider!”
The event was well-received and, more importantly, appropriately honored organ and tissue donors. More than 500 individuals attended the event.
A few years ago my daughter Olivia was attending a week-long foreign language camp for the first time. A week! They were going to mostly speak Norwegian! Dad was nervous: how in the world was she going to make friends?
My wife and I helped her arrange her things in the cabin and completed the final check-in at the medical station. As we prepared to leave, Olivia ran up the steps to grab something from her bunk. She was back in less than 60 seconds. “You guys should go now. I made a friend while I was upstairs,” she said.
Making the First Move
In the work world, it’s tougher to make friends this fast. As we go about our work, we all run into situations where we need to initiate contact with people we may not know well. There are times when we need to bring a group together that hasn’t gathered before.
To help warm up the conversation, we often turn to icebreakers. After all, taking time for deliberate activities leads to a more cohesive group and people learn more when they feel connected.
Yet, we’ve all been in situations where an activity certainly didn’t help to break the ice and, in fact, may have even chilled the room.
Time and time again, I’ve learned that icebreakers tend to produce results equivalent to the thought put into designing them. In other words, choosing an ice breaker as you walk down the hall to the conference room is not going to end well.
Just because a get-to-know-you activity worked well with one group does not mean it will be a good fit with the next one.
Choosing the right type of icebreaker is vital.
Fun and Games Icebreakers
Ice breaker games can be the most fun, but they also can be the most stress-inducing for some participants. This type of activity works best when you have a group gathering for a social purpose, or if you already know most of the personalities in the room.
The goal of this ice breaker is to bring some fun and offer a welcome break during long meetings or training sessions.
Two Truths and One Lie: This icebreaker is usually quite popular. Each participant in the group says three things about themselves — two are true and one is a lie. The other participants guess which one is the lie and share why they think so.
The Best Week of the Year: Each year I refer to the week my family spends at a rented lake cabin as “Best Week of the Year.” What would your best week consist of?
Finish the Sentence: Write sentence starters on slips of paper and place these in a bowl, basket, or bag. Have adults sit in a circle. One person pulls a slip, reads the sentence starter, and completes it. Some sample starters:
This type of gathering activity gets names out into the open plus some snippets of information that help make a connection.
The size of your group probably determines what type of activity you do here. One of my favorites for larger groups is the “2 Minute Circle.” For this activity, pair people off and then form two circles, with one partner of each group on the inside circle, facing the other partner. Each pair shares their name and something about themselves. Then, after two minutes, the inside circle rotates one person to the left.
I attend a weekly meeting where we introduce ourselves like this each time. We often share some piece of info that is related to the week’s topic. Recently, the speaker was talking about a local beer and burgers festival. We were told to introduce ourselves and share our favorite beer or burger. I had a nice conversation that day with Mark, who simply liked my answer: “My favorite beer is whatever one I’m drinking while I grill burgers in my backyard.”
This icebreaker is best when you want to get directly relevant information from participants.
With this type of activity, I have always found it useful to establish one firm ground rule: this is NOT a time for discussion. It IS everyone’s opportunity to share their thoughts.
I often think back to staff meetings I led and wish I had, even in that small group that knew each other well, opened with activities like this. As a meeting leader, the insightful icebreaker allows you to check the temperature in the room right when you start. I usually ask participants to provide three things: their name and department/organization, what they hope to get out of the day, and what is the most interesting thing that COULD happen as a result of the meeting.
An example: “My name is Sean Kelly, with Reach Partners. I hope that we walk out of here today with a firm vision of what our priorities over the next six months should be. My wildest hope is that we come up with an idea for a plan that includes more sidewalk cafes under brightly colored awnings . . . because my daughter and I love to visit places like that! If we did, I could tell her ‘Dad helped make this happen!’”
Right there is everything you can hope for in an icebreaker: you know who’s talking and conversation can flow from it. You might even remember who said it.
After all, who doesn’t want to be the guy who wants bring colorful awnings downtown to make his daughter happy? Choose the right icebreaker and you just might be him.
There are times when gratitude overwhelms you, when it covers you like a warm, fuzzy blanket.
Last week was one of those times.
On Friday, we attended the ChamberChoice Awards for the Fargo-Moorhead-West Fargo Chamber of Commerce. The program recognizes businesses, organizations, and entrepreneurs that make significant contributions to our community.
We were one of the candidates for Small Business of the Year.
We didn’t win.
And yet, we had been encouraged. Somebody (thank you, anonymous angel!) nominated us to become a candidate. A team of enthusiastic clients/vendors/friends encouraged us to fill out the application. They wrote reference letters and helped us navigate the application questions.
There’s something both humbling and gratifying about summarizing your work into a few short pages. Applying for the ChamberChoice Award gave us an opportunity to reflect on where we’ve been and where we’re going.
So, no, we didn’t win. But we are grateful for the process and for those who served as cheerleaders along the way. We felt valued.
Congrats to the organizations and individuals that won in their respective categories: Emergency Food Pantry, Great Plains Food Bank, Prairie Winds Veterinary Center, Eide Bailly, Office Sign Company, Tyrone Leslie, and Ronald McDonald House Charities of the Red River Valley.
Well-deserved! It was fun to celebrate your success.
And for everyone else: take a moment to nominate a favorite business or nonprofit next year. It may be the nudge they need to become a candidate. It’s one more way to encourage and support the wonderful business community we have in Fargo-Moorhead.
—Anita, Rachel, and Sean
There are few things worse in business than showing up for a meeting that has been poorly planned. You don’t know why you’re there or what needs to be accomplished. The organizer either hasn’t taken time to plan the purpose or – perhaps – hasn’t bothered to share the purpose with those around the table.
The solution to this problem is easy, people: Write an agenda. Send an agenda ahead of time. Print an agenda. (And, yes, you should do all three).
It may seem like a lot of pre-work, but every time you write and appropriately share an agenda, you’ll thank yourself.
An agenda is a mini-plan. It’s a small step in a larger plan that provides structure and direction. And, frankly, it also keeps teams focused on priorities.
Without an agenda, you’ll be less productive. You’ll have co-workers who get off topic and spend 20 minutes rehashing what happened over the weekend. Then you’ll spend 30 minutes agonizing over the color of flowers in a centerpiece when you really needed to decide the lunch menu.
The weekly staff meetings at Reach Partners have a set agenda. I think of agenda topics more like buckets. The specific items under each bucket change weekly, but we are always focused on our three major priorities: financials, marketing, and workload.
Without a clear agenda, it is too easy to discuss things that don’t matter.
Saves Time (and Resources)
Nobody wants to meet for the purpose of meeting.
A good agenda saves time and respects stakeholders’ time commitment. Since there’s a purpose and people know what it is, they are less likely to regret coming. In addition, a good agenda lists a start time and an end time, so people know what they are committing to beforehand.
Time is money and meetings are expensive. If you have 10 people attending a meeting and each person’s wage is $25 an hour, it costs $250 for every hour that group meets. An agenda helps make the most of that time.
I’ve been part of meetings where the project lead dismissed people after agenda items that pertained to them were done. At first it felt harsh and abrupt, but I’ve changed my mind. This person was giving people the gift of time. If the rest of the meeting didn’t pertain to them, they could be doing something more productive.
The general purpose of any meeting is to get a group of people together for some focused reason. The underlying premise is that each person invited has expertise to share or important opinions to be expressed.
An agenda sent ahead of time (no later than three days before the meeting) gives each stakeholder an opportunity to review, think, research and prepare. You want people to be engaged during the meeting, and there is a better chance of that if attendees know what to expect.
Without an agenda, attendees may be asked questions that they didn’t prepare for. Or the group isn’t prepared for the discussion you wanted to have or didn’t bring the data needed to support meaningful conversation.
An agenda sent ahead of time is more useful than one provided when you walk in the door. However, neglecting to send an agenda ahead of time doesn’t give you permission to not have one at all. A late agenda is better than no agenda at all.
Defines Next Steps
At the end of a recent meeting, I reached the last item on the agenda: review responsibilities. “John,” I said. “You are doing _______.” John quickly responded: “Oh, yes. I’m going to write that down.”
Include a quick “review” item at the end of every agenda. That plus a brief recap of the previous meeting at the beginning of every meeting put everyone on the same page quickly. We are more successful when we all know what’s going on, where things are headed, and what needs to be done.
In summary, I’ve never seen a meeting without an agenda go well. If I don’t know how to prepare or who will be attending, it feels like a waste of time.
Of course, an agenda doesn’t mean that the meeting has to be stuffy or formal. You can still have fun and share a story or two. Flexibility is allowed.
Just keep your meeting purposeful and focused. Everyone will thank you.